Securing the Future: Ethiopia’s Law Enforcement Operation in Tigray Region



We feel that we are secure when we are free from fear and live in dignity. We all want this at all time and places but this does not seem to happen in some parts of Ethiopia where peace has become a dream. In the last two or more years, news of tension, conflict and violence dominated Ethiopia’s public life.

Disquiet about what will happen tomorrow has been pervasive particularly in places where minorities live. Horrendous actions against innocent civilians have been a source of great concern, often creating a common sense of uncertainty.

Thus, in these circumstances, no one can be considered safe and secure. Ensuring the security of citizens has always been the prime responsibility of any government.

This, among other things, could be achieved through law enforcement aimed at dissuading but also by apposite military interventions to stop violations of law and maintain public order. Ultimately, this may aim at thwarting or precluding the very source of violence.

Considering the political circumstances in the post-TPLF-led EPRDF Ethiopia, it would be worthwhile to ask what actually happened and who has been behind the upheavals that the country continues facing and what could be done to remedy the security challenges in Ethiopia’s future? Does collective security depend on law enforcement operations involving military interventions? The following paragraphs ponder over these questions.

Addressing the aforementioned concerns needs a modest appraisal of contexts. The Ethiopian government and many individuals, including the author, contend that TPLF appears to have been the principal architect of many of the messes the country is struggling to deal with. We know that after taking office as the new head of state in 2018, PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed quickly initiated political reforms with significant consequences for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Yet, in many occasions, the notorious leaders of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) worked hard to impede the reform reforms.Defeated at the centre of Ethiopia’s political field and politics, the TPLF cliques and used the Tigray region as a hiding cave from where they continued to plot further damage, orchestrating inter-ethnic tensions and violence, making many of Ethiopia’s regions more terrifying places to live.

Given various reports, there is less of a debate as to whether the TPLF played acrimonious role, nurturing hate and creating confusions among the Ethiopian peoples, rather than fostering reconciliation. Part of the problem emanates from the very foundations of the TPLF that controlled the realm of the Ethiopian politics for about three decades.

Considering the last three decades’ accumulated nation-wide crisis, TPLF was not really intended on building democracy, national unity, and social solidarity in Ethiopia.

Interestingly, although Dr. Abiy’s government adopted soft diplomatic mechanisms to work with and at times appease the TPLF leaders at various times, they could no longer bear the increasingly diminished role of their presence in Ethiopia’s political

 field and leadership. They thought something had to be done, something that could dismantle the existing leadership at any cost. Therefore, something strange happened on November 4th in Ethiopia’s political history when the Tigray Regional State’s Special Forces attacked the country’s military forces in Tigray region. In an attempt to build a long-term peace and security in Ethiopia, it became imperative that the current leadership had to conduct a law enforcement operation against the TPLF belligerents.

In the next sections, a brief assessment of TPLF’s political legacy in Ethiopia, TPLF’s rebellious acts against the federal government, and the federal government’s law enforcement operation against the TPLF in Tigray region will be addressed. Finally, the piece concludes with a point that argues the operation against the TPLF preserves Ethiopia as a unified nation ending the interethnic division that divided the country since 1991.

1.The TPLF in Ethiopian Politics

From 1991 to 2019, Ethiopia was led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic based parties that included TPLF, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPM). Having established an ethnic-based federalism, the TPLF dominated the Ethiopian politics for almost 27 years, albeit its constituency, the Tigray people, makes up only 6 percent of the country’s population.

The other three parties had only trifling and ceremonial power. Although federalism, as enshrined in the country’s constitution, allowed decentralization of power, regional states suffered from the intervention of the federal government, i.e., TPLF.

As there had never been ‘real federalism’ because the ‘real power’ of the country remained in the hands of a few political and military elites mainly drawn from the Tigray ethnic group, the great majority of the Ethiopian people (including the Amhara, the Oromo, the Gurage ethnic groups among many others) felt that they were discriminated from ‘real power’ (political and economic). Ethnic federalism provided various ethnic groups the right to promote and develop one’s culture, language and so on, but it also developed distrust between peoples.

As TPLF settled itself in power, it became totalitarian snubbing many critical conditions and failing to do justice to the complexity of the social problems in the country which in turn ignited a blizzard of animosity and remonstration against the government. Demands for ‘real power’ and democracy were responded with strong hands.

The snobbish hard-liners, a small group of the former TPLF fighters and its notorious leaders just not controlled the Ethiopian politics wielding unlimited power and dominating the military and intelligence posts but also they economically enriched themselves with the money they embezzled from the Ethiopian poor.

In order to stay in power, they did everything they could, including annihilating civil societies, suppressing religious freedoms and political oppositions, destroying solidarity between the people, and orchestrating interethnic violence in unprecedented way. With invasive mass

 scrutiny of the public, and employing an absurdly fluid definition of ‘terrorism’ to justify their actions, they focused on the suppression of peoples’ legitimate questions. They tried to control a worsening situation by force which was the way they imagined to achieve security.

The TPLF-led government failed to adapt to emerging realities in the country and the world, and thought it would solve all the problems by torturing and killing dissidents. But this boomeranged, and plunged the people profoundly indignant of the government and became counter-productive making their own place heavily precarious. Generally, the TPLF era in Ethiopia was characterized by low cohesion, social tension, conflict and perceptions of threat among ethnic groups.

2. Simmering Tensions: The TPLF Defying the Federal Government

From 2015 to 2018, Ethiopia had gone through a grim of political crises, including the three-year popular uprising across the country, particularly in Oromia and Amhara regional states, that forced the EPRDF to elect Prime Minister Abiy as the chairperson of the party and the new head of government.

This incongruously signalled the removal of the TPLF cliques from their ‘king making and unmaking’ position at the central government. The post-TPLF transition in Ethiopia brought about many changes as Abiy relaxed the rigid political conditions that the country followed for decades, maintainin

 democratic principles and restructuring the country’s political landscape and legal institutions to promote reconciliation and widen up of political spaces (i.e., thousands of political prisoners were released, outlawed political parties, media outlets and other institutions were allowed to work in the country, and also many new media outlets were opened). However, the TPLF clique, the only group that did everything to prevent the prime minister from holding office, was not comfortable with these reforms.

There were a number of indicators that beckoned war between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government was unavoidable. Since Abiy came to power, there was simmering tensions between the federal government and the TPLF-led Tigray government over reforms. Once the TPLF lost power from the central government, its notorious leaders retreated to Mekelle, the capital city of the Tigray Regional State, to reorganize themselves and strongly stand against Abiy’s reforms.

The amplification of tensions, flattening of the country’s peace and the pervasive suffering of innocent citizens are mainly because of the TPLF cliques who sponsored ‘terrorism’ and all malicious acts aimed at destabilizing the country.

With all these, the TPLF cliques seemed to have daydreamt of reclaiming the power they lost, though this by no means would be materialized. In addition to the inter-ethnic violence that they orchestrated across the country, TPLF failed to cooperate

 with the federal government in many ways. Although the national court issued an arrest warrant on the notorious Getachew Assefa, the ex-head of Ethiopia’s intelligence and security for more than two decades, who was alleged of committing grim crimes, including anguishing and slaying of dissidents, the Tigray government could not bring the suspect before the law. For three years now, the suspect is on the run, living a fugitive life in Tigray.

The Ethiopian government provided a framework for dialogue with the TPLF in order to resolve the tension with religious leaders and renowned personalities acting as mediators, conveying messages to the TPLF leadership in Mekelle.

The mediation, however, was rejected by the TPLF officials who reportedly told the mediators that it is too late to the peace talks. As the mediators haven’t received any warm hospitality from the TPLF side, they were embarrassed and returned to Addis.

Despite efforts by the federal government to ease tensions, the Tigray government (TPLF) continued to defy the federal government and acted as if it was an independent state violating the country’s law, i.e., it went ahead with elections in September despite decision to postpone it.

The federal government’s motion to postpone the sixth national elections, which was supposed to be held in August 2020, was postponed to next year, 2021, due to the COVID-19, was ratified by the majority of the country’s house of people’s representatives after the constitution was interpreted by the upper house (house of federation). Very recently, the TPLF deported a newly appointed military officer to Mekelle-based military division.

Rather than acknowledging responsibility, and repenting and demonstrating unpretentious contrition for the damages they inflicted, the TPLF cliques bellicosely continued to mess up the country, preparing itself for a war against the central government, setting up, training, and arming its military forces. All these actions constituted a flagrant violation of the country’s law, threatening the viability of establishing a peaceful country that aimed at moving towards prosperity. Until recently, many Ethiopians

 accused the federal government of being lenient or unwilling to tackle the problems that have disrupted the Ethiopian people across the country and failing to enforce law, and thus pushed for military intervention against the TPLF. Since we know that tolerance has a limit, we have been observing with curiosity and more plainly than ever what measures the government would take against the aggressors.

The TPLF cliques crossed the red line in provoking the central government when they expeditiously attacked and seized a military base in Tigray region in December 3, killing the military members and controlling many arsenals, an action that has been confirmed by such TPLF leaders as Getachew Reda and Seko Ture.

The Ethiopian government immediately reacted declaring a law enforcement military operation against the TPLF cliques. Just before the operation begun, the Chairperson of the TPLF and President of the Tigray Regional State, Debretsion, bragged that his armed forces could vanquish the Ethiopian defence force. He said, “We have prepared our forces. Our preparation is to deter war, but if they force us to fight, we will win.

They may come but will not return, Tigray will be their graveyard.”Although those who are fighting from both sides are brothers and sisters (Ethiopians), and some of them might have fallen, the Ethiopian government has been left with no option other than engaging in law enforcement operation aimed at bringing to an end of the TPLF era, and restoring peace and security in the country.

Prime Minister Abiy made clear on his Facebook page“By advancing rule of law and holding accountable those that have been looting, destabilizing Ethiopia, we will lay the foundation for lasting peace & harmony”

3. Ethiopia’s Law Enforcement Operation Justified

While some countries, organizations, media outlets and individuals expressed their concern about the on-going operation in Tigray, some others stated that Ethiopia is at the brink of civil war. Their concern about the situation in Tigray region is fathomable given the fact that any war causes humanitarian crisis such as displacement.

 However, the concern that the situation will mount into civil war is only speculative because the law enforcement operation in Tigray is the continuation of what the Ethiopian government had been doing in other parts of the country, including Somali, Oromia, SNNP and Amhara regional states. The operation in Tigray, pure and simple, is aimed at enforcing law and bringing the TPLF crooks before the law.

It is a norm and legally apposite for governments to conduct law enforcement operation when public order is violated. The Ethiopian constitution allows the federal government to intervene in the affairs of regional state governments to maintain public order at times of crisis. Ethiopia’s law enforcement operation in Tigray is similar with what many other countries did in their territories.

For example, Spain intervened in Catalonia; Turkey and Iraq did the same in their respective Kurdish dominated regions and Russia in Chechnya, among many others. In 2016, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates conducted terror attacks that hit hard diverse cities of Turkey, particularly Istanbul and Ankara.

This dragged the Turkish government into military confrontations with the Kurdish extreme nationalists to assert control and extend the influence of its security services over the Kurdish dominated areas. In the process of maintaining public order, about 4,000 people were killed while 350,000 civilians were displaced.

In Iraq, Kurds moved toward the creation of an independent state and government in the northern part of the country, but the Iraqi government intervened and suppressed the movement. In Spain, the Catalonia parliament declared a unilateral declaration of independence, following the referendum held on October 1, 2017. The Spanish government, however, swiftly reacted declaring the referendum illegal, denouncing the Catalan independence, taking direct control of the region (a self-governing state since 1979), and dissolving the regional government. In all these cases, no foreign states tried to intervene.

4. No Fear of ‘Protracted’ Conflict

The deep concern about the possibility of protracted conflict and its ultimate disastrous

 effect in Ethiopia and the Horn region expressed by international organizations such as the International Crisis Group is unfounded. This fear emanates from their misunderstanding that TPLF is a strong regional power having the capacity to resist the Ethiopian National Defence Force for an extended period of time. The TPLF has no backing of the Tigray people (unlike the 1970s and 80s) and Sudan, its former close ally, particularly during the era of Oumer Al Bashir, to keep the war for extended period of time.

The border that connects Tigray with Sudan has already come under the control of Ethiopian forces. The fear that the Ethiopian military will disintegrate and join the Tigray rebellion was also proved to be unsubstantiated. Now, the majority of the Tigray region, including Mekelle has fallen in the hands of the Ethiopian defence forces.

5. Conclusion

The military intervention in Tigray region defines what kind of state Ethiopia would be: whether Ethiopia continues to be a federal state where ethnic-based regional states freely train and arm their own special forces, a leverage that would allow them to claim secession (as we have witnessed the TPLF’s attempt in Tigray region) or a strong sovereign federal state where ethnicity does not play a central role in the government system.

I believe that the success of the law enforcement oppression comes at the cost of human lives, both the military men/women and civilians but it preserves the country as a unified nation ending the interethnic division that divided the country since 1991.

The ultimate goal of this operation should be to contribute to the national security of the country through the protection of democratic and social institutions from destabilization, safeguarding a favourable environment that help people freely live across the country and advance in their socio-economic engagements.

Editor’s Note: The writer is an Assistant Professor, Ethiopian Civil Service University, Africa Institute of Governance and Development. He can be reached at Email address: or

The Ethiopian herald December 13/2020

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